Bid to prevent child labour in disarray

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2007, 12:00am

US-led plan to fight exploitation in West African cocoa plantations is in trouble

As sweethearts spend millions of dollars on boxes of artfully wrapped Valentine's Day chocolates, a US-led plan to save children from the worst forms of child labour on West African cocoa plantations is a tangled mess - a lot like love itself.

Five years after US Democratic Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation to stamp every chocolate bar sold in the United States with a 'free from child labour' label, industry, government and farmers are mired in a mess of sorting out certification to ensure only adult hands plant, harvest and transport the beans made into chocolate.

'It helps to be aware of the problem, but to solve the problem ... I don't feel we are on the way so far,' admits Amouan Acquah, the Ivory Coast government's special adviser for agricultural commodities.

Since a 2001 report from the International Labour Organisation found thousands of children working in the depths of Ivory Coast's isolated cocoa farms, the Ivorian government has spent a US$1.2 million grant from the US Department of Labour to assess the extent of the situation in six central villages.

Cocoa farmer Cheba Ouattara works on an isolated, 16-hectare farm in the heart of Ivory Coast's cocoa region. Four sets of eyes follow the farmer as he pries milky white beans from the viscous confines of a yellow cocoa pod in preparation for planting. Three of Mr Ouattara's disciples are his sons, aged 13, 15 and 18. The other is a four-year-old neighbour who followed them to the farm.

To Mr Ouattara and thousands of West African farmers like him, the children's presence at the farm is part of the natural teaching process that will prepare his sons for the day they grow their own cocoa.

Farmer Eugene Djiara said: 'They must go to the farm; if you leave them behind in the village, they pick up bad habits.'

It is seemingly impossible to get a sense of the number of children actually working in the cocoa fields, which span some of the Ivory Coast's more remote regions, hiding small workers in the leafy expanse of the tall cocoa bushes.

One anti-child labour group quotes a US State Department report saying there are 15,000 children involved. Senator Harkin's literature claims there are 5,000 children exposed to the worst forms of child labour, which include working with sharp instruments, heavy loads, chemicals and fires.

The ILO report found some of the children working in the Ivory Coast were actually from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, desert countries where the economies are so desperate, parents were selling their children to farmers who sometimes paid their workers nothing, often leaving them malnourished and sometimes meting out beatings.

After intense industry lobbying, Senator Harkin's motion went from a stamp on every chocolate bar to a stamp on every bag of cocoa to certification for every farm, moving from a ban on any child involvement to only the most serious forms of child labour.

With less than six months to go before the July deadline to implement certification, none of the world's cocoa-producing countries has managed to solve the riddle of documentation and the West African country - the world's biggest cocoa producer - is facing the added challenge of a stalemated civil war.

'We can't monitor every cocoa farm,' Ms Acquah said.

Harvesting the beans that make the world's most seductive sweet is brutal work. Ripe pods are collected by hand, using machetes, then split open to collect the seeds, which are dried, fermented, packaged and shipped.

With the war hurting cocoa prices and making the usual migration of adult workers more difficult, more and more farmers are having trouble finding and paying seasonal workers, making children even more vulnerable, said Michel Seka, a project manager with the German Development Agency.

The agency spends about US$100,000 each year supporting small programmes in 57 cocoa-producing villages and his desk is piled with funding requests for programmes aimed at getting children off farms and into school.

Mr Seka says that while the spotlight on child labour has drastically cut the number of children being trafficked into Ivory Coast, parents still use their children for things like transporting 63kg bags of cocoa, a job that is too hard on their bodies.

Still, Senator Harkin is pushing ahead with his plans, signing a US$4.3 million contract in November with the Payson Centre for International Development and Technology Transfer to monitor the implementation of the protocol.

'It's a shame the Americans don't come to see what's happening on the ground,' Mr Seka said. 'It's not enough to just give money.'